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'Mumbai Diaries': Old And New, Colliding In The City

In a moment of grunge beauty that opens the Indian film Dhobi Ghat, a construction worker squats silently on his haunches, gazing out on a forest of spanking new skyscrapers soaring above the teeming warrens of the slum where he lives.

Awkwardly slung around a dippy three-way love story, Dhobi Ghat, whose English title is Mumbai Diaries, is at its most engaging in just such encounters between Old and New India, cultural collisions in a city rushing headlong to the vanguard of global clout.

The movie is the feature debut of Kiran Rao, wife of Bollywood megastar Aamir Khan, who co-produces and stars in Dhobi Ghat as Arun, a sullen painter fitted with splendid biceps and a playboy's inability to commit. Tiring of his role as golden boy of Mumbai's trendy art scene (poor dear), Arun holes up in a new apartment in the gentrifying yet excitingly tawdry inner city.

As you may already have guessed, reality bites — or at least takes a nibble out of Arun's pouty self-absorption. A one-night stand with Shai, an Indian-American investment banker turned photographer played with fetching coltishness by the stunning musician Monica Dogra, leads our strapping hero into a romantic triangle involving Munna (Prateik Babbar), a similarly muscled laundry boy with his sights set on movie stardom. Meanwhile, Arun stumbles upon an abandoned videotape made by a young woman of low caste, whose increasingly desperate predicament will defrost his unfeeling heart and polish off a nasty creative block in the bargain.

It's easy to make fun of a premise as transparent and mass-market-driven as this — the movie's shameless populism is heavily dusted with a guileless noblesse oblige. Rao's script is riddled with Bollyspeak (a voice-over intones "Mumbai — my muse, my whore, my beloved!"), and her directing is, to put it politely, less than assured.

In short, this is no Slumdog Millionaire, yet for all its shortcomings, Dhobi Ghat seethes with raw, atmospheric vitality and an ingenuous charm that trumps the glib visual grandstanding of Danny Boyle's undeniably entertaining movie, whose kinetic restlessness goosed its audience into a state of undiscriminating excitation without ever embracing the city in all its multiplicity. Everyone's perpetually on the move in Dhobi Ghat, too, but Rao's casual episodic rhythms seem designed less to overstimulate her viewers into submission than to address the indeterminacy of a city in the throes of galloping social change. She has an insider's sense of place and an adroit feel for the way brilliant sunshine and sheeting monsoon rains mimic Mumbai's bipolar moodiness.

Dhobi Ghat is never less than equal parts heart and schmaltz — noble underclass heroes abound — but it closes with an intriguing ambiguity. Rather than rounding up Mumbai's rich and poor and in-between into a Slumdog dance of Bolly goodwill, Dhobi Ghat injects a well-placed note of doubt about the end of caste rigidity in the New India. Either Rao has a realist streak, or a Brahmin investor put his foot down.

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Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.